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Education

Union County Doctors Say Public, School Board Needs To Hear Their Case For Masks

UCPS Parkwood Middle.jpeg
UCPS Facebook
Masks are optional at Parkwood Middle School and other Union County public schools.

A group of Union County doctors who have kids in public schools there are voicing their frustration over the school board’s insistence that masks should be a personal choice. They say board members and the public aren't hearing from the people who have personal and professional experience with the pandemic.

Last year, Dr. Deba Sarma, an oncologist with two children in Union County public schools, says she was proud of how the district got students into classrooms during the pandemic.

Deba Sarma Atrium.jpeg
Dr. Deba Sarma

"I had really commended UCPS on how they had conducted things all last year," she said. "My kids went to school four days a week wearing a mask. Those parents who were not comfortable sending their kids had a reasonably good Virtual Academy option." 

But now that the state has stopped mandating masks, Union County is one of only three North Carolina counties keeping the “no mask” option open.

This week, after the Union County school board voted 5-4 to keep masks optional in schools, she was among half a dozen doctors who aired frustration with the board. The doctors say they’ve been trying to get the message out that masks can protect the community and keep students in school.

"All of us have written letters to the board, we’ve talked about data over and over, and we were feeling that OK, maybe they’re just not hearing and understanding what’s going on," said Dr. Onyinye Igbokwe, a family practitioner with three children in Union County schools. She says 35 doctors have offered to consult with the school board. Some of them say they tried to speak at Tuesday’s meeting, but couldn’t get a spot within the hour allotted by the board.

'We Just Need More Time'

Igbokwe and her colleagues say they don’t want kids wearing masks forever. But on Thursday, with the delta variant raging and more than 5,000 students forced into quarantine, she said masks are essential.

The district's latest COVID-19 dashboard, posted late Friday afternoon, says 7,153 students are now quarantined.

"We just need more time. We need more time so that we can vaccinate our children," she said. "If we can get the children vaccinated, then as a parent and as a physician, I breathe a little bit easier, right?"

At Tuesday’s meeting many members of the public and school board members focused on ways to reduce the number of students in quarantine. With inconsistent mask use, unvaccinated students have to go home after close contact with someone who tests positive. With universal masking, no one has to quarantine unless they develop symptoms.

The doctors say masks in schools also deter the spread of the delta variant.

Pediatrician Sees The Trend

Dr. Ankita Modi is a pediatrician with a practice near the Union-Mecklenburg county line. She says patients come from both counties and South Carolina.

"We went from having a mixed bag of patients from all of those communities to the vast majority of sick children we are seeing right now are coming from Union County," she said. "It’s undeniable. We’ll ask where they attend school and it’s all of the UCPS schools."

Modi says that includes students who are sick with other respiratory illnesses, which are also inhibited by masking. Between the sick children and people needing COVID-19 tests, she says her practice is canceling well-child visits and referring some other patients to urgent care centers.

Modi, who has three children in Union County Public Schools, has heard the arguments that masks traumatize students. She says she sees young children wearing masks to her office without distress.

"For them it’s like, ‘Mom makes me wear underwear. She makes me wear socks. All right, I gotta wear a mask,’" she said. "It’s one more thing. It’s not an issue."

Who's Willing To Listen?

Several of the doctors say it’s painful to hear neighbors and elected officials dismissing their expertise. They say school board members have been unresponsive, and some community members take to social media to ridicule arguments for masks.

Dr. Sandeep Patel, a public school parent who works in nursing homes, says he and his colleagues feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle against what he calls propaganda and misinformation.

"To fight against those that have their heels dug in, it’s fruitless at this point," he said. "But there are reasonable people out there that are just looking for clarity and guidance, might be on the fence about things. Those are the people we need to reach."

State law now requires school boards to vote on mask policies every month. The Union County board has gone from all nine members supporting a mask-optional plan in July to seven members supporting it in August to five this week. The doctors say they’ll keep trying to reach people who might make a difference.

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Updated: September 10, 2021 at 5:30 PM EDT
Updated 5:30 p.m. to add new quarantine total.